This post is part of a synchroblog by the Orthobloggers. See links to others participating at the end of the post.
Culture can, and does, mean many different things—anything from the entire socio-politico-religio-artistic milieu of a society, to those high art productions like ballet and opera that Average Joe wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot basketball goal. For a couple of reasons, I’m not going to attempt to tackle the former:
- It’s beyond my scope. I’m not an informed student of sociology or politics, and when it comes to religion and arts other than my own, I mostly just know what I like.
- It’s nonsensical to talk about an “Orthodox culture” in that first sense in any Western country. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any country in the world where it currently makes sense, because the Orthodox underpinnings of society have been eroded by persecution and secularism almost everywhere. You can’t have an “Orthodox culture” unless you have a predominantly Orthodox population—and maybe not even then.
I’m also not going to talk about ballet or opera or painting, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because they’re not my field.
I’m a writer, so I’m going to talk about Orthodox culture in the context of literature.
To some people—probably the same Average Joes and Janes who shun ballet and opera—”literature” is a dirty word. It conjures images of dusty tomes whose content is as dry as the ancient paper they’re printed on. It revives unpleasant memories of stern high school English teachers who apparently believed they could make students love Dickens and Melville by telling them all the reasons they should. It’s epitomized by scholars like the (possibly fictional) one who wrote the introduction to the poetry text in Dead Poets Society, which suggested a poem’s worth could be determined by plotting its scores for skill of composition and significance of theme on a graph.
These people, if they read at all, don’t want “literature”; they want stories. The more action-packed, the more like a movie translated to print, the better.
From my point of view, literature simply consists of the best stories of all time dressed up in their best Sunday clothes. Also from my point of view, the best stories of all time are those through which eternal truth shines most brightly.
By this I do not mean stories that contain a “salvation message” or that depict nice Christian people going about their nice Christian lives. I mean stories like Perrault’s Cinderella. Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment. Lord of the Rings. Till We Have Faces. Bleak House. Mansfield Park. The Way We Live Now. East of Eden. Peace Like a River. The Wind in the Willows. Harry Potter. Stories in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and sinful people and a sinful world are redeemed by acts of heroism, sacrifice, and love.
If Orthodox Christianity is the purveyor of eternal truth to mankind, then Orthodox culture as embodied in literature refers to books like these. If we want Orthodox culture to flourish in the contemporary West, we need to do all we can to produce and encourage books like these.
If we are writers, we need to write them. If we are publishers, we need to publish them. If we are readers, we need to buy them and read them.
I could with little difficulty count a dozen or so Orthodox writers who are currently writing excellent fiction but cannot find anyone to publish it. It’s “too religious” for general market publishers, too sacramental and incarnational for “Christian” (read evangelical) publishers. And (putting on my editor hat for a moment) it seems for the time being too financially risky for Orthodox publishers who have built up a somewhat shaky business based on nonfiction. Orthodox bookstores don’t know what to do with it, they don’t have a shelf for it, so they don’t buy it.
If the rapidly growing Orthodox population of the West wants Orthodox culture in the form of literature, it’s going to have to put its money where its mouth is. It’s going to have to start clamoring for—and buying—good works of fiction by Orthodox authors (and those who share our fundamental point of view).
There’s an old saying among Orthodox: You get the priest you deserve.
There’s a new saying that’s equally true: You get the culture you deserve.
Other blogs participating in this synchroblog:
- Dn Stephen Hayes of Khanya on Orthodoxy and culture
- Jonathan Kotinek of Fixing a Hole on Orthodox Synchroblog – Orthodoxy and Culture
- Susan Cushman (Guest Post by Daphne Davenport) on Orthodoxy and Culture